Biology Lessons

 

An injured butterfly gently rested in my cupped hands. Looking closely, I admired the symmetrical patterns painted in sleek black on bright yellow wings. The scalloped hindwings were decorated with a royal blue art-deco design and the slightest touch of orange. She was a work of art.

I could easily identify it as a female eastern tiger swallowtail, or Papilio glaucus, thanks to my tenth grade biology teacher, Mrs. Shaw. In hindsight, she was one of the most talented teachers I ever had. She helped me see the beauty and artistry in science. This was no small task as I typically enjoyed more creative, right-brained pursuits.

Always dressed in a white lab coat, Mrs. Shaw taught bell-to-bell with no idle chit-chat or wasted time. Using colored chalk, she drew intricate diagrams of cells, or whatever we were learning at the time, which we would replicate and study in our own notebooks.

Even in college, it was rare to have a professor with Mrs. Shaw’s combination of knowledge, passion, and teaching skills. When I became a teacher myself, I borrowed many of her techniques for running an effective and efficient classroom. She was smart and kind, poised and mature, making her a role model for all students, especially impressionable young women.

Students in Mrs. Shaw’s biology class completed two main projects ~ an insect display in the fall and a wildflower display in the spring. Picking wildflowers was right up my alley, but the bugs were another story. I wasn’t afraid of them, but I didn’t want to kill them.

Mrs. Shaw gave a compelling explanation why “preserving” the insects was crucial for our education and that was that. Armed with a bug net and glass jars containing cotton-balls soaked with rubbing alcohol, I scoured our yard, nearby woods, and roadsides for a month in search of insects native to Southern Illinois.

I set up my entomology lab on my dad’s workbench in the garage. After collecting an insect, I carefully placed it in the jar. I added my own step of saying a prayer of gratitude to each bug for sacrificing its life for my GPA. Next, I methodically mounted the insects with pins onto the foam board our teacher provided. The most important step was properly identifying each specimen by its common name, scientific name, and category.

Forty years later, I can’t help but remember that experience when I encounter a cute ladybug (Harmonia axyridis), an exquisite praying mantis (Stagmomantis carolina), or a beautiful monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus).

I had placed the swallowtail on a flowering bush, hoping her injured leg didn’t prove to be fatal. I bent down to say some encouraging words, and she began to move a bit. “You can do it,” I cheered.

It was then I decided to name her. “Fly away, Mrs. Shaw,” I said with a grin. Suddenly, she fluttered off the bush in a graceful loop. “Thank you for the biology lessons,” I whispered. “I haven’t forgotten them.”

 

 

 

 

 

The Elegant Universe

 

The Perseid meteor shower nudged me outside at three in the morning to gaze at the black sky dotted with twinkling constellations. I gasped and giggled each time I saw a star shoot across the sky. I wasn’t thinking about science; I was there for the wishes.

The celestial spectacle must have sprinkled down a little magic stardust to lift me far above my personal and planetary desires. My mind became empty, and I was transported. I floated above my limited Earth-bound concerns, completely aware of the vastness of the universe and the smallness of little ol’ me.

Only one thought pulsed through my being ~ the universe was created with such beauty, such elegance.

The Elegant Universe is the title of the book that inspired the popular Nova series by the same name. It explores superstrings, hidden dimensions, and parallel worlds beyond my understanding. I am more poetess than physicist, but I do adore the title.

Elegance can be defined as that which is exceptionally beautiful and simple, modest and at the same time bright. There is elegance in a snowflake, a spider’s web, a mourning dove, the big dipper. Wikipedia adds, “Elegant things exhibit refined grace and suggest maturity.”

There’s no need to point out the lack of elegance littering on our planet. Politics, pop culture, and nightly news make that easy, but these are things over which I have little influence. I’m but a single star in the infinite cosmos.

Am I shining “like a diamond in the sky” as the nursery song encouraged?

We were created to be brilliant. We have a responsibility to add goodness to the universe. Imagine if each of us blazed through our days, leaving our own trail of light and love in an otherwise dark world.

Under the spell of the Perseid meteor shower, I stopped wishing and set an intention ~ to use my thoughts, words, actions, gifts, and blessings to add to the elegance of the universe. 

I will often fall short. As Norman Vincent Peale wrote, “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

City Mouse, Country Mouse

 

The past few years my husband I had many discussions about our retirement plans. Consideration of family and budget helped narrow our choices, but we were still undecided. The question remained ~ did we want to live as the proverbial city mouse or country mouse?

Sometimes we dreamed of living in a sharp condo in the city. “We could go to concerts, sporting events, and restaurants,” Mike said. “You know how I love the arts,” I added. “We could be patrons of the theatre, ballet, and symphony.”

Yes, we would enjoy the life of a city mouse.

Sometimes we dreamed of living in a secluded cabin on a lake. “We could hike, kayak, and swim,” Mike said. “You know how I love nature,” I added. “We could be surrounded by peace and quiet.”

Yes, the life of a country mouse would be wonderful.

On little more than an instinctual whim, this past spring we moved to a lake house in woods. Recently, we spent a weekend in Chicago visiting our daughter who lives and works amid the hustle and bustle of the city.

We sipped champagne in a swanky bar while listening to a jazz trio play Etta James. We strolled through a museum, standing inches from beautiful works of art. We dined at hip restaurants and tasted trendy cuisine. The city was exciting and energizing.

From inside a taxi, I watched throngs of people rush past each other. The driver blared his horn and braked sporadically to avoid unpredictable pedestrians. It reminded me of driving the winding roads near our house, stopping for animals that run out of the woods without warning.

The crowds in the crosswalk turned into forest animals. Deer tottered in high heels, foxes talked on cell phones, and hipster turtles strolled slowly across the road. I shook my head to stop my silly imagination and realized I was a little homesick.

We were sightseeing at Navy Pier, Chicago’s busiest summer tourist spot. To escape the crowds, we found a table tucked in the corner of a restaurant patio. Instead of looking at the magnificent view of the Windy City rising up from the shoreline of Lake Michigan, Mike and I quietly watched a handful of birds enjoy a pile of discarded French fries.

He looked at me and said definitively, “Honey, I’m a country mouse.”  I smiled and winked, “Me too.”

The city will always be a nice place to visit, but we’re thrilled we followed our intuition and retired to the country. True, there isn’t nearby shopping, restaurants, or cultural entertainment. But we drift to sleep to the soothing sound of crickets and bullfrogs in the still, starry night. We rarely find ourselves in a line of cars or people. And we will never tire of working and playing alongside our forest friends who live in our neck of the woods.

And so, in the simple life of a country mouse, they lived happily ever.

 

The Empty Nest

 

A plump, orange-breasted bird and her mate began building a nest atop a porch light of a house that sits on a gravel road aptly named Robin Drive. The middle-aged couple moving into the home didn’t notice the birds gathering the grass, twigs, and mud necessary for the perfect nest. They were busy feathering their own.

The robin was peacefully resting in her finished nest when the lady walked around the corner of the house carrying an armload of empty boxes. She came nearly eye-to-eye with the bird, startling them both into brief hysterical flapping. The robin gave a sharp alarm call, “Peek! Peek!” and flew to a nearby tree.

The anxious bird was relieved to see the woman and her husband study the nest with a sense of reverence and mystique. She felt sure the nest on Robin Drive was a safe place to lay her eggs, one each day for four consecutive days.

The next three weeks or so, the robin felt like a welcomed guest. The people avoided disturbing her as they worked around their new home. The lady made a habit of tip-toeing a few feet away from the nesting bird and whispering, “Hi, Little Mama, I’m sorry to bother you.”

When the robin flew off in search of food, the man carefully photographed the four sky-blue eggs inside the nest. Once the beautiful eggs hatched, they watched the blind, featherless brood instinctively open their mouths, trusting their parents would feed them almost continuously.

The robin knew time with her sweet babies would be brief. As she whistled them a lullaby in the protection of their nest, she reminded herself of the two lasting gifts she would give them ~ roots and wings.

The lady sympathized with the mother robin when the babies were big enough to hop out of the nest, but not yet strong enough to fly well. It’s a dangerous time for the fledglings. The day the little birds were capable of flying completely on their own was bittersweet.

It was May when the lady saw the robin hopping around the yard near the birdbath. “Hi, Little Mama,” she said. Looking at the empty nest on the porch light, she confided, “I know just how you feel.”

She sat down on a tree stump and was quiet for a minute. “You were a good mother,” she said. “They’re going to be just fine.” Perched on the edge of the birdbath, the robin sang them a rich and comforting tune.